When did people start making art objects in which repetition played a large part? Perhaps long, long ago: I can't help thinking of those ancient Chinese terracotta warriors from 200 BCE. But widespread implementation of the idea – by workers who weren't slave-deep in repetition – must have followed the industrial revolution, as both physical objects and images became easier to replicate.
In the 1960's Pop Art couldn't get enough of the repetition inherent in mass production and mass consumption. It was a fact of life, and it involved some very talented designers. Andy Warhol's “Four Marilyns” is a perfect example of the genre; Warhol (an ace graphic artist before he began creating art) loved the silkscreen process that let him quickly duplicate a photograph that had already achieved iconic status and run off numerous prints, each slightly and inevitably different. Warhol's color choices, of course, are his own; no one can say that the medium presented him with those.
But I sometimes feel that an artist using this technique is trying for an unfair advantage by bashing us over the head with identical images – if one is impressive, 16 or 32 has just got to be killer. Sometimes it is, but often more is not better, and a basic lack of artistic inspiration shows through. The real artistry often comes in the way the artist handles the instances in which the repetition is not perfect, as with Jasper John's flags and wooden compartments, or Dan Flavin's sculptures composed of identical fluorescent tubes.
The comparatively recent phenomenon of tea-bag quilts incorporates the advantages of mechanical repetition (of the bag itself) with often-subtle color variation (provided by the bag's contents), arranged in a multicolored grid by the patient soul who stitches the quilt together. One local work in which repetition is paramount and variation irrelevant is “Untitled (Minuet in MG)” by Samuel Yates, a majestic 65-foot tower of four-drawer metal filing cabinets at the di Rosa art preserve in Napa, CA. Something about the mere fact of repetition, combined with the artist's eye for color and scale, has resulted in a piece which transcends its pedestrian origins and commands the expanse of lawn upon which it is mounted. Car buffs (like the late Rene di Rosa himself) may be interested to learn that the cabinets are filled with the remains of a 1974 MG Midget sportscar.
There's a piece in the Beyond Gaga show at Works/San Jose that calls upon all of the notions inherent in mechanical repetition, but goes well beyond them in the service of art. Sculptor Jann Nunn has sawn a length of railroad track into thin sections, and cast the sections in amber-colored rubber, which she has strung together on a vinyl-sheathed cable and separated with tiny latex spacers. The whole centipede-like thing hangs from the ceiling at Works, looking vaguely like a feather boa from the Cyborg Ball. I should say that the ends (which aren't visible in our vertically challenged picture) are thicker sections of “track” which serve to anchor the piece – as well as you can anchor something which is as soft and squirmy as a two-year-old.
Nunn's piece, “This is Not a (Rubber) Nude Descending a Staircase,” catches your attention because of its size and the repetition involved; it works because each translucent element chooses its own path depending on the orientation of its neighbors. It enters the realm of art because those squishy segments are a long way from the sections of steel railroad track they came from, but – on the other hand – perfect replicas of them.
“Nude” is just one of over thirty intriguing pieces in the Gaga show – plus one, the value of which you may decide for yourself, by your correspondent. This professionally mounted show sponsored by the Pacific Rim Sculptors Group opens tonight, and it's worth a trip to San Jose.
Beyond Gaga: A Juried Sculpture Exhibit
February 1 – March 9, 2013
365 S. Market Street
San Jose, CA